In the last months of his administration, US President Bill Clinton tried to resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute. The effort fell short, but it was the closest anyone came to resolving the conflict since the creation of the Israeli State in 1948.
In the last months of his administration, President Barack Obama is giving interviews to explain how everyone else is to blame for the five-year Syrian conflict – which has supplanted the Israeli-Palestinian issue as the region’s destabilising centre and shows no sign of receding.
Rather than evaluate what could be done to mitigate the damage, Obama has chided allies such as Britain, Germany, and France. He has implicitly lashed out at his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, as she campaigns to succeed him. And he has shown little regard for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been killed and the millions who have been displaced, and who will continue to die and flee in his final months in office.
Obama’s Hamlet moment
Obama’s attempt to define – or perhaps rescue – his legacy is framed in an article by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. Much of the piece is taken up by Goldberg’s interpretation, but when you get to the President’s statements, they cut to the bone.
Goldberg rightly opens with Obama’s Hamlet moment: his sudden decision not to respond when the Assad regime used chemical weapons near Damascus in August 2013, killing more than 1,400 people.
It had seemed as though intervention was inevitable. Obama had indicated as much a year previously when he declared:
We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.
Secretary of State John Kerry was ready to intervene. Preparations were being made. The British parliament had stepped back from military action but Arab States and Turkey were ready. French warplanes were on alert. Obama’s top advisers gathered at the White House on August 30, thinking they would confirm US participation in airstrikes.
And then the President went for a walk in the Rose Garden with his Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, the leading sceptic of intervention.
Obama returned to tell Kerry and the other surprised officials that there would be no military action. Chemical weapons were suddenly not such a red line issue after all.
‘I’m very proud’
What is initially striking about Obama’s commentary to Goldberg is the lack of any reference to those most immediately affected by his decisions. In autumn 2013, the approximate death toll in Syria was 110,000. In 2016, a conservative estimate has it at more than three times that number – although the UN has long since given up counting the bodies. The number of registered refugees was then 1.6 million; it is now more than 4.8 million, with an estimated 7 million people displaced inside Syria.
Not a single one of these people features in Obama’s assessment of the decision taken on August 30, 2013, of which he says:
I’m very proud of this moment.
Obama explained his satisfaction by arguing that he had made the “right decision” to step back from intervention in the face of extreme pressure to live up to his promises. He bravely ignored the perception that his credibility was at stake, deciding that intervention was not in America’s interest.
Millions of Syrians disappear from the narrative in order for Obama to establish himself as the maverick – the visionary who led America away from the abyss.
Other close allies must also be thrown under the bus to burnish Obama’s reputation, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron – a weak Prime Minister “distracted by a range of other things”.
They include those who were his closest advisers. Secretary of State John Kerry’s futile attempts for a meaningful response to Assad’s aggression becomes the Obama line, “Oh, another proposal?”. UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who built her reputation on studies of failure to prevent genocides, is summarily dismissed: “Samantha, enough, I’ve already read your book.”
And it is necessary to question if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now campaigning to become President, will be a reliable Commander-in-Chief. There are no outright attacks on Clinton, but the interview charts the difference of opinions between the two over Middle East strategy.
Syria is the catalyst, with Clinton’s advocacy of no-fly zones and support of the protesters and rebels. Obama’s excuse for rejection is that the US President’s responsibility must be “don’t do stupid shit”. Clinton reacts that this “is not an organizing principle”.
A “rip-shit angry” Obama eventually decided to make peace with the Secretary of State and the two “hugged it out”. Three years later, however, the President has the final word through the interviews: he has a higher understanding of what needs to be done in Syria and in US foreign policy.
Dismissing Syria’s people
There are very good reasons to debate how countries such as the US should handle crises overseas. There are no quick fixes in Syria, especially not now Russia is involved.
Working with local opposition groups, as well with Kurdish factions who now control much of northeast Syria, is a complex process. Getting to a meaningful transition in which Assad steps aside will require a determined stance and years of commitment.
However, the President’s long testimonial to his success is not an engagement of these issues, but an evasion of responsibility. Issuing slogans such as “we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted”, he blithely distorts the issue as a choice between repeating or avoiding the disastrous quest for regime change in Iraq.
The reality can actually be summed up in one sentence from the text, when Obama dismisses not only the Syrian conflict but, more importantly, the people caught up in it, who paid with lives and a refugee’s subsistence because they had thoughts of rights and reforms:
When you talk about the moderate opposition, many of these people were farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn’t have a lot of experience fighting.
And so the President is “very proud of this moment”, this moment when he decides how the farmers, dentists, radio reporters, teachers, lawyers, students, and children take their place in Barack Obama’s legacy.